reposted from the 1994 essay
I had an hour to kill while the Apple Computer dealer assembled and tested a new hard disk drive for me. Lunch, I decided, would be a good way to use up an hour, keep my mind off my worries about my computer files at home, and reward myself for having been up most of the night recovering the files from a “crashed” hard drive.
It was an oppressively muggy day, that sort of overcast day when the diffuse light steeps lifelessness into all the colors and makes everything look the same. A lousy day for a drive. Somewhere south on El Camino, I spotted a place calling itself “Ten Fu Chinese Restaurant.” It looked empty, perfect for my contrived, kill-time, contemplative mood. I hung a U-turn and pulled into Ten Fu’s “Parking In Rear” area. This doubled as reserve parking for tenants of the adjacent apartment. A circle of women were holding hands in the middle of the parking lot, communing in some deep spiritual ceremony. The uniformity of blissful smiles assured me this nest of beatitude was best left undisturbed. I pulled around the oblivious circle slowly, parked, and walked cautiously into Ten Fu.
The place seemed deserted. My watch said two-fifteen. Two waiters sprang to life while I waited by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. One asked if he could help me. “Is it too late to be seated?”, I asked cheerfully. He dead – panned it: no, sir, not too late, right this way, please.
I was escorted past huge tables for parties of eight or more. My waiter hid me at a little table, adjacent to a drab freestanding folding utility screen. This hid the little workstation where restaurateurs keep the clean ashtrays, toothpicks and ice water. I like to look around, but said this would be fine. There was only one other party in the whole restaurant. We were both on the same side of the folding screen, so they, and a vast expanse of undecorated red wall space, were my principal view. I ordered Szechuan Beef.
Soup came right away; with no time to warm it from the lunch hour “crowd”. It being Saturday, this might have been soup from Friday’s lunch hour. When my mind’s fogged from lack of sleep, I can understand how people who endure periodic bouts of chronic depression must dread knowing what the next bout will do to their attitude. I felt like that about my attitude. I hoped lunch would help. Even so, the soup was still lukewarm-lousy, compellingly evocative of those tired old speculations as to what they really put into this stuff. I sipped at it, tried to ignore the conference at the next table, and soon enough the soup was gone. Time: two-twenty-five.
It seemed there was just nowhere to rest the eyes in this place, but upon my pot of weak tea, a blank red wall, and that oddly inanimate conversation at the table next to mine. I pretended not to listen.
About eight American-born Chinese were talking about one or more church projects. Swell. At best, I am not generally a big booster of churches and church promotions. There was some question as to who would finance all the $20 Bibles which had to be passed out, and as to whether the recipients would get these Bibles up front, or be required to first complete a baptism. Just the sort of distraction I needed to fan my growing restlessness.
After a bout of eavesdropping like this, I will generally begin to feel I am inviting comparison to all those others who don’t cherish (as I do) that grand illusion of privacy. I mused as to whether these joyless folks would ever actually succeed in making one person’s life a little happier or more coherent with their programs and merit Bibles. Who would teach the recipients how to seek wisdom from these books, or seek solace in their words? Who would teach these teachers?
The trouble with everybody else’s religion in America is that those who “have it” are encouraged to substitute concrete literalness for thought, gospel for introspection, and advice-giving for self-examination. They may use the good words to hide from themselves and from their own souls, or they might use the words to manipulate and coerce others in ways the original manuscripters doubtless never conceived. Good old America: situational ethics, formula solutions. If somebody comes with a twelve-gauge to shoot my cow while she’s being milked, hey, what should I do? What should I say? How would the Bible handle this situation? “Plug it into the Bible”. Fractured ideas, disconnected from source or context, “thou shalt nots”, proscriptions and admonitions extracted out of context like so many fragmented files on my disk drive at home which has irretrievably broken its original directory.
In a short while, I get to go home, back up my recovered files onto my new hard drive, and rebuild my directories from scratch: clean slate. Proselytizers can show us the records, they can even direct us to the methodologies, but they can’t teach us how to live. Everybody should learn how to rebuild their own directories once in a while.
I realize I must be tired. I do not usually see myself as so smugly cynical, and it dawns on me that maybe I really am. Time: two-thirty. The Szechuan beef arrives, a generous portion, and warmer than the soup, too, with pork fried rice and topped with a large slab of yummy fried cookie and glazed egg roll. I’d never seen a luncheon garnished with the dessert before. I decide to see how much of the fried rice and beef I can eat by undermining its undisturbed cookie “roof” until the foundation collapses.
The distinguishing thing about the party at the next table, I decide, is that nobody is having a good time. They are not having a meeting after all. They are going through the motions of having a meeting, perhaps because they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps because they are unwilling volunteers. There is nothing for them to do but let one woman, the apparent “leader”, decide on-the-fly what is to be done, and how she will want them to do it. She patiently instructs them on what everybody’s duties will be, and she does not appear to see any need to address any group member as an individual. I am reminded of grade school kids being herded during a fire drill. If these are missionaries, they’ll find no zeal here.
The conversation lacks any spark of spontaneity, with a carefully metered lifelessness, as if you and I are dividing up chores to mop up some horrible and very distasteful mess – and would really prefer not to be discussing this at all. Very much like discussions about the weather, the presumption of the participants must be that, if it isn’t already a nice day, conditions will eventually improve.
The “leader-lady” is counseling her group that she does not know yet what their brochures will look like, or how they will be printed, but that she will be able to determine what “will be needed” to make the brochures suitable, as soon as she sees the group’s completed effort, which she delegates. The participants’ stony downcast eyes tell the story. They evidently see that she’ll know what she wants them to do when she sees it. Nobody is looking at each other. I realize that this person has no concept whatsoever of how to plan a project, of how to enlist the aid and enthusiasm of the volunteers. The group realizes this too.
I think of the untold human effort which has gone into projects just such as this, based on the simple and flawless premise that life should be happy and purposeful, and that we should be able to find others who can pass on the distilled wisdoms from the discovery process, so we do not all have to re-invent everything from scratch. On the other hand, groups like this are solid evidence that perhaps we should, after all.
A younger man finally interjects with guarded enthusiasm that he has a computer program which could print the Chinese character sets directly onto their brochure. The leader lady ignores him, stating, for some reason, that no matter what the form of the brochure, it must leave space at the bottom for a name and a telephone number. I silently wonder why, imagining that perhaps the leader lady has already invested in a rubber stamp and ink pad, saturated with the blue-black ink of the ’50’s public libraries. Yes, by all means, leave room at the bottom of the form! The young man lapses into silence again.
I see that I shall be able to finish luncheon after all, and so cannot burn up a little more time waiting for a take-home container, or “doggie bag,” as we are so pleased to style it. There is not enough left to take home, so I eat the rest. Like these people at the Bible church group, I am here only because I do not yet want to be “there”, waiting (in my own case) idly for my new hard drive to be set up and formatted. Unlike the folks at the next table, I can look at my watch as often as I want. It is hard to say what they are waiting for, since nothing is happening here for them either.
I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were. I can pay and leave Ten Fu’s at two-forty-five, and I do.
© Alex Forbes, La Parola July 1994
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